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As the old saying goes, the NBA season doesn’t really start until the playoffs.

And with the field of 16 tipping off the first of many seven-game series tomorrow—that’s a potential for 105 games in the next few weeks—it really does feel like an entirely new season. And in case you’re just tuning in now, for the first ever NBA postseason without any Lakers, Knicks or Celtics suiting up, we’ve put together this quick guide on each conference:

The hurried man’s guide to the NBA playoffs.
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The Same Old East: It’s nearly a forgone conclusion that it’ll come down to an Eastern Conference Finals between the two-time returning champion Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers—who fought long and hard this season to clinch the number one spot in the East in anticipation of getting home court advantage during this matchup. LeBron and Co. are looking for a three-peat, but they’re getting older while everyone else is getting hungrier. Then again: King James is still the most dominant force in the universe. And also basketball. It all hinges on whether Indiana’s young guns Paul George and Roy Hibbert can rise to the challenge in South Beach. (They couldn’t last year.)

The Sleepers: At the third seed, the Raptors are the closest thing the East has to a potential sleeper pick, after having one heck of a second half of the season. But here’s a stat to put it all in perspective: had they played in the Western Conference, their record wouldn’t have even been good enough to make the playoffs. Think about that, going forward, when considering the rest of the East’s field.

The Rest of ’Em: The Bulls are facing another postseason without their perennially injured superstar Derek Rose. While their center and spiritual anchor Joakim Noah has continued to flourish, it’s tough to imagine they’ll go too far into the playoffs this year. The Wizards are just fun to watch. Their point guard, John Wall, is lightning-fast and wildly creative at times, and when things are clicking between him and off-guard Bradley Beal, they can be a dangerous combo. Then there’s the aging Nets, the just-happy-to-be-here Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks.
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The Wild West: If you’ll recall that stat we gave earlier—that not even the East’s third-seeded Raptors would’ve made the Western Conference playoffs—you start to get an idea where the real basketball action is happening this postseason. The Spurs, coming off a crushing NBA finals loss last year, have had their best season in years. Which is saying something. And they’re pitted against the equally old-yet-capable 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round. (The first round!) Then there’s the poised-for-greatness Oklahoma City Thunder boasting LeBron’s heir apparent, Kevin Durant, and his insanely talented sidekick, Russell Westbrook. And finally, the not-so-dark-horse contenders for Western Conference Champs: the LA Clippers (yes, you read that right).

The Sleepers: Everyone. Okay, not everyone. But the Houston Rockets have sufficient firepower between James Harden and Dwight Howard to make a sneaky run. Then there’s the mystifyingly good shooting of the Warriors’ Stephen Curry—when paired with a Klay Thompson shooting streak and solid play in the post from Barnes and Lee, they’re electrifying (and hard to beat). And you can’t count the Mavs out, as mentioned earlier.

The Rest of ’Em: We probably could’ve thrown the Portland Trailblazers into the sleeper mix as well, but they’re basically Warriors Lite—or maybe it’s the other way around?—with a growth potential that just projects the West to become more and more scarily good with each new season. And last but not least: the Memphis Grizzlies. They’re a good team, just in the wrong conference.

—N.B.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Najib Benouar